Email. It’s both a major convenience and a ceaseless distraction. But, regardless of how you feel about it at the present moment, one thing’s for sure—it’s an unavoidable necessity. Chances are you can’t make it through a workday without composing one (alright, likely a lot more than one) email.
And, if you want to be professional and get your point across in a way that’s clear, that’s efficient, and that doesn’t make your co-workers want to lay their heads down on their desks out of pure frustration? Well, there are a few different etiquette rules you’ll want to make sure to keep top of mind.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard all of these a million times before,” you’re likely thinking. But, despite how many times these points have been hammered home, I’m willing to bet you’ve still committed a common email faux pas at least once in the past week—maybe even day.
Needless to say, I think we all could use a refresher every now and then. So, here’s a handy list to help you brush up on all of those email etiquette rules you swear you know—yet fail to actually implement.
When you build a house, you start with the basement. So, before we dive into the specific sections of your email, let’s take a look at the fundamentals.
Even if you ignore or forget every single other part of this article, at the very least make sure you’ve checked these boxes.
- If you’re sending from a personal address—for a job application or informational interview, for example—make sure your address is still professional sounding. You want to make the right impression, and “PartyGurl123@gmail.com” isn’t going to cut it.
If you’ve received an angry message or are feeling enraged yourself, step away from the computer for a few minutes. Firing off something in the heat of the moment will only result in problems.
Proofread. Enough said.
Effective timing is one of those things that’s all too easy to forget about when you’re doing your best to power your way through your inbox.
But, if you’ve ever received an immediate one-word response to a thoughtful, lengthy message, or you’ve waited weeks to get a reply you were anxiously waiting for, I think you’ll agree that timing is worthy of a little more consideration.
- As a general rule, respond to emails as soon as you’re realistically able to. You don’t want to leave people hanging.
If the message deserves a little more time and thought, don’t fire off a half-assed, immediate response just to get it off your plate. Instead, reply and confirm that you received it—and notify the sender that you’re going to take a little bit of time to think things through.
A great tip to help you keep your responses in check? Muse co-founder Alex Cavoulacos recommends that the faster you respond, the shorter your answer should be.
Seemingly endless email chains. Co-workers who continue to CC you on messages that have absolutely nothing to do with you. Those teammates who seem to have no clue what that handy BCC field is for.
They’re all things you probably gripe about—at least when other people commit them. But, let’s turn the spotlight on you for a minute. Have you gone against any of these etiquette rules in regards to your recipient list?
- Proceed with caution when using “Reply All,” and only use it when everyone in that thread needs to be updated. You’ve been warned.
Don’t be afraid to use BCC, especially in those instances when you don’t want all of the addresses or recipients to be visible to everyone.
Here’s a handy rule to keep in mind: Listing someone in the “To” field means you expect a response. In contrast, if you CC that person, you’re simply keeping him in the loop on your message to others.
With all of that said, the fewer people you can include on an email, the better. Too many cooks in the kitchen will likely just lead to confusion and crossed wires.
What’s the first part of your message that people will lay eyes on? That’s easy: your subject.
As you already know, a great subject line can work wonders for your email as a whole. A bad subject? Well, let’s just say it can inspire a great deal of aggravation among your recipients.
- Make your subject line specific, rather than relying on vague phrases like “Checking In.” This allows your recipients to immediately glean what your message is about. Plus, it’ll make it that much easier to find it when you need it later.
Keep it short. While you want it to be specific, that doesn’t mean it needs to be its own standalone paragraph. Try to stick with fewer than 10 words—anything longer than that can likely be its own sentence.
No matter how big of a hurry you’re in, don’t skip the subject field entirely. Nobody likes seeing that ominous “No Subject” in his or her inbox.
Here it is—the meat and potatoes of your message. The other fields are important, but this is where you’ll really make it clear why you’re contacting the person in the first place.
Yes, workplace communications have becoming increasingly casual. But, that doesn’t mean you want your emails to transform into total unorganized messes. Make sure you’re keeping up with these etiquette rules, and your messages are sure to be polished and professional.
- This is another spot where you’ll want to be as clear and concise as possible—you can likely just consider that the golden rule of emailing. After all, if something takes pages of text to explain, you’re probably better off doing it in person or over the phone.
Stick with all of the traditional writing rules you learned in school. That means proper sentence structure, capitalization, punctuation, and resisting the temptation to litter your message with emojis.
Make sure that your message contains a clear ask or action items. Whether you’re requesting a co-worker’s opinion on something or looking for details on the piece of a project, you need to have a solid reason for emailing—and you also need to make that reason explicit.
If there is no action required of the recipient and you’re simply emailing to provide an update, make that clear as well. People need to walk away from your note knowing what’s expected of them.
Use bullet points or numbered lists where appropriate. We’re all busy, and some formatting makes it much easier to skim through your message and get the highlights.
Bold important information so that it stands out, but avoid using all caps, which makes it look like you’re yelling.
Use a legible font, and avoid too many different font colors. You want your message to be as simple to read as possible.
Need to attach something to your email? It’s often an afterthought, and you wind up just tacking on what’s needed right before hitting “send.”
But, attachments aren’t the Wild West of the email world. No, there are still a few etiquette rules you’ll want to make sure you’re following.
- Before attaching anything, make sure that it’s actually needed. There’s no point in attaching a one-page Word document containing two sentences.
When in doubt, attach your file as a PDF so you don’t run into any compatibility issues.
If you need to send a large attachment, make sure you “zip” or compress it first.
Get in the habit of attaching your file before drafting the body of your email. That way, you can avoid the dreaded, “Sorry, I forgot the attachment!” follow-up message.
If you’re rolling your eyes and claiming that you’ve heard all of these before, I don’t blame you. But, chances are, you still fail to abide by these frequently repeated etiquette rules every once in a while.
So, consider this your friendly reminder to snap out of autopilot and pay closer attention to your messages. Your co-workers will thank you.
Do you have any other rules or pet peeves to add to the list? Let me know on Twitter!
Photo of woman on computer courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author